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To Convert Or Not To Convert? 5 Key Considerations Of Commercial-To-Lab Projects

12.07.16 / Bryan Thorp, AIA, LEED AP BD+C and Adrian Walters, AIA, LEED AP BD+C

Predicting the cost, schedule and tenant appeal of a commercial-to-lab conversion is an essential yet elusive objective. Most commercial buildings we evaluate for possible conversion contain both obvious and hidden barriers to a successful lab changeover. The readiness of any individual property is best considered only after resolving a few key questions.

1.    What type of life science tenant are we seeking?

Creating a tenant and use profile is the first strategic step in narrowing multiple variances. Identifying the specific types of research best matched to the market, location and need is a helpful first step. From there, we can develop opening assumptions on the type of research environments and cost models, and chart a design and fit-up scenario based on equipment criteria and code issues.


 

2.    Can the building’s structural system support labs?

A close look at a building’s base structure - foundation, beams, columns, floor slabs, floor-to-floor heights, and structural bay spacing - will reveal the structural opportunities and constraints. The ideal floor-to-floor heights for a lab fit-up are typically 15 feet or higher. Mechanical duct work and above-the-ceiling equipment can be accommodated with lesser heights depending on the type of lab, but with buildings in the 10-12-foot range design options become compromised. Weight considerations are also key. Average live load capacity in an office building is 50 pounds per square foot (PSF). Heavy lab equipment such as imaging and fabrication equipment require much greater capacity, typically in the 100 to 150 PSF range. It is also essential to review existing bay size; our best options exist when bay widths are in multiples of 11 feet.

3.    What level of HVAC and electrical infrastructure is in place?

A major cost component in a lab fit-up is the mechanical and electrical systems. In commercial buildings, HVAC systems recirculate much of the air for heating and cooling, while lab environments require air to be exhausted and replenished after circulation. Achieving this higher level of HVAC performance, essential for contamination control, requires larger and more complex systems that may exceed the tenant allowance in the building. Electrical criteria for labs often exceed existing systems as well, due to energy-intensive lab equipment and the 24/7 demand of refrigeration units. An estimate of electrical needs based on a projected equipment inventory will provide a valuable baseline for budgeting.
 

4.    Can we mitigate vibration issues?

An early understanding of vibration mitigation - existing and future - is a crucial yet often overlooked consideration. With hyper-sensitive tolerance standards, vibration-sensitive robotics, and use of equipment from electron microscopes to nanotechnology testing, existing vibration levels and the feasibility of mitigating them for research can make or break a conversion plan. Many conventional commercial properties are ultra-light in structure, causing even the vibration of occupant footfall to be a problem. Beyond existing conditions, we need to analyze the future vibration conflicts originating with required lab equipment, and consider creative solutions for equipment location and problem mitigation.

5.    What is the cost of code and life safety compliance?

Code compliance for life safety, fire protection, and accessibility loom large when evaluating an older building. For example, understanding the limitations related to storing potentially hazardous materials is one of the unknowns to resolve early on. What chemicals and flammable materials will be required, and in what estimated quantities? Where within the lab will safe, code-compliant storage be created? Control Zones, areas defined for the storage of potentially hazardous materials, should be planned in accordance with local codes and designed to provide maximum flexibility and practicality. Control zones and maximum amounts of flammable materials storage are typically preferred by permitting authorities to be accessible to the fire department. The largest allowances are made for the first floor, and decrease in size and quantity of materials as you move higher up. Understanding the compliance issues and managing materials handling will contribute to a cost-effective and predictable conversion.

A beneficial starting point is to establish a Basis of Design that integrates these and other fundamental cost and schedule considerations. Among other benefits, a well-conceived Basis of Design allows the team to develop projections for a “level” of M/E/P service and structural modifications that will be needed to support the equipment and protocols of a prospective tenant within the desired profile. To source the data needed, we benchmark equipment needs from other research facilities and seek the cost and constructability expertise available from specialty research consultants, construction contractors, and subcontractors.

With an informed projection of cost, risk, and ROI, owners and developers can make a go or no-go decision more quickly, and if necessary move on to assess other properties for conversion. While recognizing the limitations of design and construction assumptions, we also know that most buildings will reveal their opportunities, cost issues and design constraints when we ask the crucial questions.

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